Deconstructing Lutheran Identity

lutheranA recent blog comment by Rev. John Hannah, President of the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, stated a good bit of truth and got me to thinking. He writes: I believe that the strong desire within the LCMS to look like Evangelicals on Sunday morning stems from a very strong aversion to Roman Catholicism and to mainline Protestantism (which includes Episcopalians). . . . We became totally admiring of Billy Graham and his evangelizing method during his [Graham’s] heyday. . . . If those aversions are deeply rooted it will be a long time before we overcome the desire to appear with a pronounced Evangelical face. I don’t know how to change it. Peace, JOHN (click here for original comment and context ).

I can’t say I agree with all of Pastor Hannah’s analysis, but that is okay. What he says in the quote above is the truth that he and I can agree on, and it is becoming more and more evident that this is what is happening to the Lutheran identity of the Missouri Synod, its pastors, and its congregations. Here is how I analyze what is happening.

Evangelical wannabes in the Missouri Synod, whether laymen, pastors, or entire congregations, have justified their imitation of American Evangelicalism through arguing that we can imitate Evangelical “style” so long as we retain Lutheran “substance.” This argument was developed by David Luecke in his popular book: Evangelical Style and Lutheran Substance: Facing America’s Mission Challenge (St Louis: CPH, 1988). I gave a response to Luecke’s arguments in my article “The Christian Philosophy and the Christian Religion,” LOGIA 4 #2 (April 1995):43-48 (click here for free PDF of that issue).

Since 1995, I have expanded my analysis of this problem, partly by reading about the challenges of Pietism in the 18th century and partly with my own study in semiotics. What is going on in the Missouri Synod is that Evangelical wannabes are undermining, yes, even deconstructing Lutheran identity a piece at a time, by replacing cultural “identifying symbols” of the Lutheran church with those of the Evangelical churches.

Evangelical identifying-symbols since the 1970s have included, in the realm of worship: worship-leader-pastors clad in polo shirt and khakis, pop band and pop music (with Christianized lyrics), pop-star wireless microphones, soundboards in the nave (attached to hefty amplifiers), and projection screens. In Evangelical wannabe congregations, the following Lutheran identifying-symbols are absent: clergy collars, traditional vestments and paraments, hymnals, pipe organs, traditional Protestant hymns, traditional Lutheran liturgy, and in many cases, any sort of liturgical art or cross. Members, guests, and visitors look at the Evangelical identifying-symbols and think, “Hey, I am in an Evangelical mega-church.” This Evangelical symbol-system then drives out the good (i.e., genuine Lutherans) and attracts the bad (i.e., Evangelical-minded folk).

Evangelical wannabes claim this is all “adiaphora,” but that is not entirely true. Dr. Robert Kolb, Professor Emeritus of the Concordia Seminary—Saint Louis wrote perceptively about the 16th century Adiaphoristic Controversy in his Confessing the Faith: Reformers Define the Church, 1530-1580 (St Louis: CPH, 1991): The leaders of the Philippist party were largely professors who could be satisfied with abstract formulations; the Gnesio-Lutherans were for the most part parish pastors, who felt the implications of those formulations in the lives of the people who would be affected by them in daily life. Their pastoral sensitivity led them to defend the precious heritage which Luther had given them through bold confession of the faith. (p. 81).

Those of us who have been parish pastors for the last thirty years or so—I was ordained in 1984—know exactly what this change in symbol-system is doing to our congregations and our people. Our laymen know who they are mostly by the symbols that they see around them in worship. True, they should be able to ignore all the symbolism, and hear only the word—but only a few folks do that. The vast majority relate to the church through its religious symbol-system. Our confessions speak to this issue clearly: We must not include among the truly free adiaphora or indifferent matters ceremonies that give the appearance or . . . are designed to give the impression that our religion does not differ greatly from the papist religion or that their religion were not completely contrary to ours (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, X, 5; Kolb/Wengert, 636).

Does the Lutheran religion differ greatly from the Evangelical religion? YES. The theology that is actually preached from Evangelical pulpits is all about drunkards, drug-addicts, and adulterers getting their social skills in order. It is also about turning a disordered life into an ordered one that is useful to family, neighbors, and community. Nothing wrong with that—but that is the Evangelical notion of “salvation.” “Sin” for Evangelicals is seen as overt crimes and anti-social behaviors. If you can refrain from that, you can be saved. This is gross Pelagianism, which even the Roman Catholics back away from. How much more do Lutherans, in the grand Augustinian tradition, find this whole Evangelical religion not only lacking, but completely contrary to ours.

Those Missouri Synod folks who change from Lutheran symbol-systems to Evangelical symbol-systems argue that what they preach, teach, sing, and pray is pure Lutheran doctrine. In many cases, this is true, so it is hard to fault those particular folks; but in many other cases it is not true. How do we analyze this complexity? The key terms here are “usually” and “sometimes.”

The adoption of Evangelical symbol-systems by Missouri Synod congregations usually leads to the abandonment of Lutheran liturgy, historic liturgical elements, and historic hymns, but not in every case.

The adoption of Evangelical symbol-systems by Missouri Synod congregations usually leads to a less active congregation in worship, i.e., they become more of a passive audience than a participating, speaking, and singing group, but not in every case. If this happens, they can no longer claim that their Lutheran church is “the singing church.”

The adoption of Evangelical symbol-systems by Missouri Synod congregations usually leads to a growing pop-star mentality by the preacher, but not in every case.

The adoption of Evangelical symbol-systems by Missouri Synod congregations usually leads to changes in the pastor’s daily work activities. He relinquishes or abandons duties in catechesis, religious education, visitation of sick and shut-ins, and the giving of prayers and devotions in various auxiliaries and groups, but not in every case. He then replaces these duties with the work of a business CEO, with business meetings and administrative stuff, which always expands to fill a vacuum.

The adoption of Evangelical symbol-systems by Missouri Synod congregations sometimes leads to the loss of the Lutheran name in the congregation. Examples of ones that I know of are Saint John Church in Ellisville, MO and Crosspoint Church in Katy, TX. This name-change usually leads to the abandonment of other Lutheran-identity resources, like the Small Catechism, the Book of Concord, and publications from Concordia Publishing House and other Lutheran publishers, but not in every case.

The adoption of Evangelical symbol-systems by Missouri Synod congregations sometimes leads to the adoption of autocratic forms of congregational government, as found for example in the “Transforming Congregations Network” group.

The adoption of Evangelical symbol-systems by Missouri Synod congregations sometimes leads to the abandonment of Lutheran theology altogether, the transfer of the pastor and/or lay members to a non-Lutheran denomination, sometimes the complete dismantlement and “death” of a congregation through loss of members, income, and assets.

Some of us pastors and laymen have been writing and speaking about these trends in the Missouri Synod; and some have submitted overtures to their district and synod conventions with the hope that the trends would stop. But things seem to keep getting worse, not better. This is not the fault of the current synodical President, Matthew Harrison, who is doing everything he can according to the powers given him by the constitution and bylaws, to stem the Evangelical-wannabe tide. It is the fault of some district presidents, some former synod presidents, and other high-up leaders who are doing everything they can to defeat Harrison and his work, and so reclaim the Missouri Synod for the Evangelical wannabes.

I have been writing about this subject, in a critical way, since my first article against Evangelical wannabes: “The Perils of Pauline Christianity Today,” Affirm 14 #1 (Feb. 1990):10-12. For nearly twenty-five years, I have been publishing scores of articles against the Evangelical wannabes in Affirm, Christian News, LOGIA, Credo, Lutheran Clarion, Steadfast Quarterly, and more recently on the web-blogs of BLOGIA and Brothers of John the Steadfast.

Of course, this made me some enemies. In September 2007 at the first meeting of the new board of Concordia Historical Institute, of which I was Director, a new member of the board who was the wife of the president of the “Jesus First” organization, said she would make me “accountable” (this was witnessed by all board members). Although not explaining what that meant at that time, it became clear when I was terminated by the board (involuntary resignation) in May 2008. It is clear to me now that I was terminated because of my defense of Lutheran theology and practice in the LCMS in those articles and speeches that criticized the Evangelical wannabes. Fortunately for Concordia Historical Institute, that woman and her allies are no longer on that board, and the new Director, Dr. Daniel Harmelink, is a good man and genuine Lutheran.

It is also clear to me now that I will not stop my criticism of the Evangelical wannabes in the LCMS until I give up writing and speaking altogether. Why? Because the identity of the Lutheran Church is at stake, not only in the LCMS, but also among all those churches around the world who look to us for inspiration, guidance, and assistance.

What can you do?

  1. Become better informed about the issues affecting our church-body.
  2. Read the print publications, like Lutheran Clarion, LOGIA, and Christian News.
  3. Read the web-blogs-publications, like BLOGIA and Brothers of John the Steadfast.
  4. Listen to Issues, Etc.
  5. Attend good conferences in your region, if you can afford the time and expense.
  6. Elect delegates to district and national conventions who are solidly Lutheran.
  7. Send overtures that address the issues of Evangelical-influence.
  8. Be careful when calling a new pastor to your parish.
  9. Share what you have learned with your Lutheran friends.
  10. Support with your dollars those organizations and publications that want to keep our synod true to its original vision, i.e, a church normed by the canonical Scriptures and the Book of Concord.
  11. Pray for the Lutheran church, that our Lord would keep her true to the vision and witness of Martin Luther, until Jesus returns.


Deconstructing Lutheran Identity — 15 Comments

  1. One of the disturbing trends in the LCMS is the disuse
    of the hymnal on Sunday mornings. Many parishes now
    print out the entire order of worship in the Sunday bulletin.
    The hymnals remain in the pews as decorations. This bad
    habit allows the worship service to be a paste and cut
    process with parts of the liturgy eliminated and hymns
    included which are not approved by LCMS.

    Projection Screens in LCMS congregations are probably in
    less than 15%. They are probably found mostly in newly
    constructed churches from the past 2 or 3 decades.

  2. Very good points you make, pastor, but, overall, the conclusion one must draw is that there is no doctrinal accountability in the LCMS for pastors and administrators? From what is stated our leaders can get away with non-Lutheran doctrine and practice and nothing is done. Very sorry state of affairs when there is no scriptural rebuke and doctrinal discipline in the LCMS today. The beat will go on, as it worsens, as many predict. Who holds these false teachers accountable in the LCMS? It begs an answer.

  3. As you testify, disagreement over worship has become increasingly contentious in the LCMS. Small, conservative, liturgically-minded congregations, mainly in rural and small town areas, are keeping the tradition alive, but often are only one pastorate away from losing this identity, and in some cases may lose the battle before their tenure is up. Contention over the traditional-contemporary worship issue has marked my last two pastorates, and it is a hard line to hold. I can only imagine how many pastors have had their tenure cut short – like yours at CHI – because they dared to promote and/or defend our liturgical identity.

  4. Sadly, the deconstruction of Lutheran identity is happening within our Concordia Univeristy System as well. This is particularly troubling since our future teachers, DCEs, musicians, pastors, and laypeople are being taught that Evangelical worship (and in some cases, Evangelical theology) are indeed Lutheran, when in fact they are not. There are some students who see through this, thankfully, but there are many who wind up believing it is true. If we don’t teach and instruct our young people well, the issues will get much worse, I fear.

  5. I think that one of the things that people tend to gloss over in the history of this trend is the extent to which it was a reaction to the tendency toward historical criticism and some outright denial of parts of Scripture that became the subject of so much controversy during the 1970’s. The laity did not know who to listen to, or who to ask to visit Aunt Gertrude when she was dying, because they could not be confident that a clear Gospel message would be conveyed. It was impossible to assume that pastors would even teach or believe that evangelism was appropriate, good, or even acceptable in some cases.

    In those times, it was a relief to find other Christians who *still* believed that the Bible was the inspired, inerrant Word of God, and who believed that Christ commissioned His Church to proclaim His Word to the lost as well as to the already churched. These other Christians were largely evangelical and non-denominational. I think that that led fairly directly to the present-day dabbling in evangelicalism that has so permeated our church body, much to her detriment.

    It was not good to climb out of the effectively anti-inspiration hole only to fall into the inappropriately fundamentalist/Reformed one, losing much of the dogged Lutheran insistence that we are part of the church catholic, and can be identified as such by our teachings, practices, and historical continuity in the process.

    We don’t have to be non-denominational to avoid being Roman Catholic, and neither do we have to be Roman Catholic to avoid being non-denominational. We get to be Lutheran, and we should be!

  6. I do not know what is happening to Lutheranism these days. Post modernist voices seem to be growing louder. Too loud.

  7. Keep in mind that Pastor John Hannah’s “Lutheranism” is that of the Seminex movement and era, and we see where that has led: the ELCA.

  8. I pray for you, Pastor Noland, and all of the others who continue the fight to save the LCMS.

  9. @Lutheran Irish #6

    Yes, and the ELCA is nothing if not thoroughly vested in the works-righteousness “Social Justice” religo-politics of the political left.

    That is why the ELCA is so enamored with the current Pope who has de-emphasized pro-life and traditional morality in favor of Political Correctness and economic Socialism.

  10. Thank you, Brother Noland, for your thorough explanation and your faithfulness in confessing the Faith.

    I’ve wrestled with whether I wanted to say anything, even slept on it! 🙂 … I agree with all that you say, Brother Noland; yet, the comments of “Soldier of Christ” (#2) ring ominously true. And, perhaps the reason is this: congregations binding themselves to the doctrine and practice of the Lutheran Confessions are increasingly valuing the Confessions and getting stronger in them; simultaneously, congregations binding themselves to the practices of American Evangelicals are becoming more American Evangelical in doctrine… in short, while the healthy branch grows, the sick branch withers. Brother Rossow’s new post might help explain where the problem came from, but if we ask what can be done about it, only #9 on your numbered list calls for direct interaction with and influence of those in ‘confused’ congregations. And, let’s be honest, nobody thinks of #9 as something that will work among pastors who are hell-bent on adopting American Evangelicalism (among confused pastors? Yes, it might help).

    My point is that Soldier of Christ’s comments remind us that while the Gospel of Christ does not rely upon the bureaucracy of the LCMS, we have somewhat tied down the proclamation of the Law in our bureaucracy (read ‘doctrinal oversight’ and ‘dispute resolution’). But, DPs who don’t do their job faithfully don’t give us an excuse to continue on without reproof and correction. President Harrison may not have the support of the DPs, but he has a bully pulpit… just as we pastors do. And we better use them rightly as the Lord has commanded (Ezekiel 33:7-9). If Harrison fears that the Synod will not approve of using his bully pulpit to rebuke Crypto-American Evangelicalism, perhaps that implies fear that the majority of Synod has already been charmed by American Evangelicalism. And, if we pastors are worried how the congregations will react, perhaps we ought be more worried how God will react. The more we rely on the Synod structure as an excuse for not calling a spade a spade, the more we harm our loved ones and perhaps even ourselves.

    And yet… pastors preach within their own pulpits and not within the pulpits of other pastors steeped in American Evangelicalism. Thus, our influence among laity in other congregations is limited. This truth is what turns our attention back to our synod’s structure. And, within our structure, who is given the authority to call erring pastors to repentance? And is that authority being wielded rightly, or is it being muffled into ‘dispute resolution’? Ultimately, this isn’t a ‘synod’ problem… this is a ‘Law and Gospel’ problem. I commend Pres. Harrison for the Koinonia Project. But we can’t talk forever while agreeing to disagree and yet pretend our fellowship is true. The good of the Koinonia Project will mean nothing if there is no willingness to finally draw the line in the sand and condemn error that is not repented of. It took Chemnitz and cohorts shy of a decade to root out Crypto-Calvinism. How long will it take us to root out Crypto-American Evangelicalism (I’m willing to give it a decade – or more – IF there’s sign of progress)? Or is the problem that we’re beyond the point of trying to root it out, and now the majority of the synod would rather just tolerate / accept it? Kyrie Eleison!

  11. Pr. Noland,

    Another excellent post and reflection. While intuitively and experientially, I concur with your series of “usually” and “sometimes” conclusions, I can’t help but think that each of these would benefit from specific research. There’s a lot of data out there, but I’m unaware of anyone who has done the spade work of drawing that data together and producing the analysis. If it exists (and if you can point toward it) I’d love to read it. If not, it needs to be done, and presented to the Synod in convention.

    Also, your observations remind me of a series of language studies in my youth, when my Spanish teacher reminded us that to learn another language changes the way we think, actually restructuring the pathways of the mind. I’ve found this true not only in Spanish and Italian, but in Greek and Hebrew studies over the years… language, as an integrated system of symbols, reflects a particular way of thinking and approaching the world.

    It occurs to me, that we are steeping our people in the language of American Evangelicalism, and over the course of several decades, have reshaped the way they think. Lutheran language and symbology (as with our whole catholic inheritance) now seems foreign to many, and they don’t even know how to think like Lutherans anymore, because they have lost (or never learned) our language. Quite the catechetical task ahead of us, I think… not only to teach the substance of Lutheran doctrine and practice, but to teach the language and symbology through which it is communicated.

    Thanks again for the great points to ponder.

  12. Dear BJS Bloggers,

    Thanks for all the comments so far. I appreciated all of them.

    I agree with Carol Broome’s comments about how we got into this mess. Pastor Tim Rossow has a blog post, posted just a bit more recently than mine, that also elucidates this. Carol is right that running away from the Liberal Protestant influence caused many–of the older pastors–to seek comfort and support with the American Evangelicals. Milton Rudnick wrote an important book in the late 1960s on the topic of whether Fundamentalism affected the LCMS (it was published by LCMS). His conclusion was that it did not, but he did not look at the issue of whether Evangelicalism of the Billy Graham sort affected us. I think it is obvious now that it has.

    Some folks may have been confused by my post. I was not saying that adiaphora are not adiaphora. I was applying the principle of Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, X, section 5: We must not include among the truly free adiaphora or indifferent matters ceremonies that give the appearance or . . . are designed to give the impression that our religion does not differ greatly from the papist religion or that their religion were not completely contrary to ours (Kolb/Wengert, 636).

    So the question is not: does a congregation use this or that practice, this or that hymnal, or the pastor wear this or that piece of clothing. That is a “rules-based” approach that is not helpful. Rather the question is do the changes “give the appearance” or “are they designed to give the impression” that Lutherans are not greatly different from the Evangelical religion. That is the question that has to be asked, at least if you want to follow the criteria set by the Book of Concord.

    I hope this clarifies things a bit. I encourage you all to read Pastor Tim Rossow’s post which was posted after mine, and continue the discussion there.

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

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